New Mailbox

Mailbag: Now Open

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Against my better judgment, let’s try this again. With spring practice beginning next week, let’s open up the mailbag.

Football questions welcomed. Brevity appreciated. Trolls ignored.

Drop them below or @KeithArnold.

Tracking fifth-year spots and the bumpy road to 85 scholarships

Jarrett Grace
41 Comments

With Notre Dame on break, the campus is quiet one week before spring practice gets started. But the work inside the Gug is still likely underway, with recruiting efforts for the 2016 cycle pushing forward and discussions about the 2015 roster taking center stage.

While Matt Hegarty’s transfer announcement was the first big move, there are other very difficult conversations likely happening in the near future. With the 24-man recruiting class set to hit campus this June—along with graduate transfer Avery Sebastian—we will get a closer look at how Brian Kelly plans on dealing with the very first roster crunch of his tenure in South Bend.

As we look at the fifth-year senior candidates, it’ll be very interesting how the Irish coaching staff—not to mention the players who will all likely have immediate transfer opportunities after earning their degrees in May—let this play out.

There’s a chance Notre Dame could have players practicing this spring that aren’t a part of the roster come summer and fall. And that’s before taking into consideration the very likely return of KeiVarae Russell and the intention of bringing back Ishaq Williams as well.

Here are the fifth-year candidates currently on the roster:

Josh Atkinson
Jalen Brown
Amir Carlisle
Ben Councell
Matthias Farley
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Conor Hanratty (Kelly already announced)
Matt Hegarty (Hegarty announced intent to transfer)
Chase Hounshell
Nick Martin
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Ishaq Williams

 

Let’s make some assumptions:

We have seen the last of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown. The veteran cornerback duo didn’t even travel to most away games last season and will be given every opportunity to catch on at a different program, but their time at Notre Dame is finished.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, you can make the same assumption for Chase Hounshell. Multiple shoulder injuries took Hounshell’s career off course, and he’ll likely have to go to a smaller school to find a home.

Anthony Rabasa played a small role on last year’s defense, serving as a pass rusher in a defense in desperate need. If I were managing the roster, I’m not sure there’s room for him as a player, though what he does off the field and in the locker room (things we don’t know) could be the bigger determining factor.

On the flip side of these decisions, starters Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt are locks to return. The same for Matthias Farley and Everett Golson, with Golson holding the eject button if he feels the quarterback job won’t be his. (I don’t see this happening.)

Jarrett Grace needs to be healthy. We’ve heard Kelly nearly will him back to health with his frequent updates, but after a catastrophic injury that stayed far more under the radar than it should have, Grace seems to be back to playing shape this spring.

If he can play, he’ll be back. If not, it’ll make for a very difficult loss to the team, even if his shoes have been filled capably by Joe Schmidt on the field.

Because Amir Carlisle started the season opener in 2013 at tailback and had a successful first season as a slot receiver, he’s a good bet to return in my mind. Again, more opinion more than confirmed truth, but Carlisle is a high-character kid who can play a position of need on the roster, making him valuable.

Ben Councell might be a different story. Recovering from an ACL injury suffered in 2013 wasn’t easy . He’s also a tough fit in Brian VanGorder’s defense. We heard early last season that Councell would be a versatile piece of the Irish defense. That didn’t happen. So if he doesn’t feel like he’ll have a large role in the defense—or doesn’t feel like he can compete because of the injuries that have piled up—Councell might be on the bubble.

As Pete Sampson reported a few weeks ago, Williams needs to reapply to the university. From there, it’ll be very interesting how it all shakes out, as numbers seem to be tight. But Williams is a veteran body up front, something we saw a need for last season.

Fun With Numbers

Let’s look at how the Irish will get to 85 scholarships by the fall:

 

24 incoming recruits
22 second-year players
22 third-year juniors
11 seniors
graduate transfer (Avery Sebastian)
re-enrollment (KeiVarae Russell)
12 remaining fifth-year candidates
92 scholarship players

We’ve already basically subtracted four or five members from the fifth-year group if we’re to believe our assumptions. So that makes the seven subtractions look much more manageable than two or three scholarships.

And this is when we get used to the law of averages. Last year, Nile Sykes never made it to the season. From the 2013 recruiting class, we never saw Eddie Vanderdoes in South Bend and Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed as well.

Attrition hit the 2012 recruiting class even harder. Gone are Justin Ferguson, Gunner Kiel, Will Mahone, Davonte Neal and Tee Shepard.

So before we sound the alarm, there’s likely a very strong grasp on what is going on inside this program when the staff decided to expand their signing class to 24, and very good reason why Kelly sounded bullish on accepting a few graduate transfers as well.

Notre Dame doesn’t officially recognize redshirts. One of the benefits of forcing students to earn a degree in four years before being accepted into the graduate program is that it allows both the coaching staff and student-athlete to have full flexibility.

So while it certainly makes for some uncertainty as we try our best to track the roster, after five years of program building, we’re finally experiencing the first champagne roster problem of the past decade.

No change to CFB Playoff a good thing for Notre Dame

Jack Swarbrick
21 Comments

The only reviews of the College Football Playoff that matter are in. And after one year and a whole lot of excitement and unpredictability, don’t expect to see any changes coming soon.

That’s a good thing for Notre Dame.

And with athletic director Jack Swarbrick holding a seat at the table among the NCAA conference commissioners that orchestrated the first playoff, there’s a belief among the actual decision makers that the status quo is more than good enough.

Speaking with ESPN’s Heather Dinich, it appears the lessons learned from the near-annual tweaking of the BCS are a big reason why things are staying put.

“I think we made several mistakes with the BCS, and one of them was that, for a while, we were continually changing certain aspects of it,” ACC commissioner John Swofford told ESPN.

So for all the concerns that TCU and Baylor’s exclusion would have, Year 2 will stay four teams and the same process for the selection committee, and it’s looking like any major tweaks aren’t coming any time soon.

For a Notre Dame team that still plans on scheduling difficult games, that means they’ll still face the challenge of not playing for a conference championship. But they won’t see any radical alterations with automatic berths or tweaked formulas.

We might even get rid of the ridiculous weekly rankings that served as a mostly as debate fodder.

“That’s really the only change I would hope we have a conversation about in April,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson told ESPN. “We don’t need seven. I know ESPN likes seven. It’s great ratings, but there’s other ways you get around it. It’s good information because all week you can argue back and forth … so it’s all good for the sport. But they don’t mean anything, quite honestly.”

 

Ohio State’s victory—beating Alabama and Oregon after leapfrogging TCU and Baylor for the fourth seed—likely kept any major changes from even being considered. But even if Year One drew the ire of the majority (it didn’t) for very good reasons, forcing the teams competing to change (goodbye Cupcakes) rather than simply tweaking the rules makes a ton of sense.

Sure, logistical moves are needed. Helping families attend games and not feel the wrath of last-minute travel and hotel rates is a no-brainer. But while switching to eight or 16 teams has been discussed more than a few times, the Pac-12’s Larry Scott was more than candid about the final decision on four.

“We spent a lot of time thinking about it. We looked at other models with more teams,” Scott told ESPN. “First and foremost, I think we don’t want to go further, in terms of the number of games the student-athletes are playing. We want to preserve the importance of bowls that are not in the playoff. We want to keep the importance of the regular season and the drama involved, and we want to keep college football a one-semester sport and not go further into January. For me, those are the four primary reasons we think four is the right number.”

After a few rocky years, annual realignment worries had some Irish fans wondering if Notre Dame was destined for a forced marriage as a full-time member of a conference. But while the Big 12 will likely try to add a conference title game and other moves are likely on the horizon, it appears the largest variable in the equation isn’t changing.

And that’s a very good thing for Notre Dame.

 

Spring Solutions: Defensive Line

North Carolina v Notre Dame
40 Comments

In a showdown with the defending national champions, most neutral party observers were shocked when Notre Dame’s defensive front dominated Florida State’s veteran offensive line.

So were most Irish fans.

With Jarron Jones breaking loose and Sheldon Day causing problems, the Irish’s two interior defensive tackles showcased their abilities. Patched together by players young and old, Brian VanGorder and Mike Elston managed to get productivity out of the defensive end spot as well.

But as the season continued and injuries hit, the critical lack of depth showed itself as Notre Dame’s front fell apart. Behind Day and Jones was little experience. An already inexperienced defensive end spot looked more and more lost as reserves playing reserves turned the final product into a group held together by string and glue.

The depth chart returns largely unchanged, with reinforcements (perhaps young and old) on their way. With new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore infusing a new voice into the meeting room, let’s take a look at the defensive line before spring practice starts next week.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.*
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.
DE: Romeo Okwara
DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DT: Jon Bonner, Soph.*
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.*
DE: Jhonny Williams, Soph.*
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.*
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

*Denotes fifth-year available

This group could also still add Ishaq Williams, who needs to do some academic work before reapplying to the university for summer school. Technically, it could also include Anthony Rabasa and Chase Hounshell as well, though it’s assumed that both will be moving on after graduation, either to another program or to life after football.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Andrew Trumbetti: After a solid debut season, Trumbetti needs to take the type of step forward we saw from Isaac Rochell last year. Likely, that’ll come in the weight room. But ideally, it’ll come from a speed, quickness and pass rush ability as well.

Notre Dame is desperate for a pass rusher. They’ll add Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner into the mix this spring with Bo Wallace coming in this summer. Most think that’s not enough, but after being thrown into the mix early, Trumbetti establishing himself this spring would be key towards this defensive line stepping forward on generating heat on the quarterback.

Jarron Jones: There are still screws in Jones’ foot, meaning any on-field work this spring isn’t happening. And after this coaching staff already worked through a similar injury a few years back with Braxston Cave, it’ll be key for Jones to keep his strength and conditioning up to par while he continues his recovery.

While he’s got a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, a big senior season could set up Jones for the option to head to the NFL. But he’ll need to do his best in rehab and fitness if he’s going to hit the ground running heading into next season. We saw an offseason surgery derail Stephon Tuitt’s junior season. Let’s see if the Irish training staff learns their lesson as they deal with Jones.

Sheldon Day: After making the smart move to stay in school, Day needs to prove he can stay healthy. He’s got the confidence of his coaches. And now he’ll be working with Gilmore, who has a track record of producing NFL defensive linemen.

Day led the team in “almost” plays last year, a stat less valuable than Monopoly money. Getting through spring and supplying leadership for a young position group should be what’s most important for the veteran captain, who will likely find comfort as a more vocal leader heading into his final season.

Isaac Rochell: If you’re looking for a defensive lineman to feel good about, Rochell is your guy. Early comments from Brian Kelly last year gave us a hint that Rochell was ready to take on a bigger role. And after losing Ishaq Williams in August and Tuitt to the draft, Rochell played as well as you could have hoped coming off a mostly anonymous freshman season.

It’s hard to learn much from a Vine video, but Rochell out-quicked Sheldon Day in an agility drill. He’ll likely come into spring inching closer to 300 pounds. Big, strong, fast and agile isn’t a bad skillset. Getting more comfortable as a versatile piece on the defensive line, Rochell could be a great candidate for a next-level season.

Romeo Okwara: This is it for Okwara at Notre Dame, with a redshirt season never possible after depth problems forced him onto the field. But as Okwara enters his second season at defensive end, finding more comfort at the position will be key.

You could win a lot of money by knowing that Okwara quietly led the team in sacks last season with 4.0. That says more about Notre Dame’s struggles generating pressure on the quarterback than maybe anything Okwara may have done, but it’s a nice place to start from.

Grant Blankenship: That the big-bodied freshman stepped onto campus and played spoke to the lack of depth up front. But it also should be a credit to Blankenship’s preparations.

With a few more months in the weight room, it’ll be interesting to see what Blankenship weighs on the updated spring roster. There’s plenty of room to grow, which will only help the Texan’s versatility up front.

It’s hard to have a firm grasp on what Blankenship’s best skill is. With the length that made him an early target of Bob Diaco’s for his 3-4 system, we’ll see how Keith Gilmore plans to use another nice piece of young talent.

Daniel Cage: After being on Notre Dame’s recruiting radar for just weeks, Cage stepped in at defensive tackle and played a key role in short yardage situations, a stout player at the point of attack.

Battling through late-season injuries, spring will serve as a progress report for Cage, who will be counted on to take plenty of snaps without Jones in the mix. At his best, Cage can be the type of run-stuffer that would’ve fit in just fine in a 3-4 scheme, capable of doing more in VanGorder’s system.

But starting from scratch with a new defensive line coach, Cage will be asked to prove it this spring, likely part of the next wave of young players who need to take a big step forward if the front four is going to be considered a strength.

Jon Bonner: After jumping out early last training camp, Bonner started his career as a 269-pound outside linebacker, a position listing that may have been a pipe dream, but still is quite telling about the youngster’s athleticism.

Bonner never saw the field, keeping the redshirt on as depth issues surfaced. But capable of fighting his way into the mix this spring, it’ll be curious how Bonner looks knowing that the field is only as far away as he allows it to be.

Likely a candidate to be Day’s understudy at tackle, Bonner may also have the ability to add some pass rush to the mix.

Jay Hayes: After being thrown into the mix after injuries took hold, Hayes suffered a hard-luck injury against USC, rallying to return for the bowl game, but not an ideal development considering the thought that went into burning a year of eligibility.

But that decision was ultimately a compliment to Hayes’ ability, with the assumption that he’ll be around for five seasons one Kelly and company weren’t willing to make. That means Hayes will enter spring not just as a redshirt expecting his first taste, but rather as a veteran looking to prove something.

Keep an eye on the New York native.

Jacob Matuska: Thrown into the fire when injuries piled up, Matuska struggled with his own health and it showed late in November. A big body expected to battle in the trenches, he wasn’t able to do that successfully late in the year, with a stinger limiting him in the season’s final games.

We’ll see this spring if Matuska is an emergency depth player or a guy who can do more than that. You can’t teach nearly 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, but that doesn’t help if you get blown off the ball. After learning what it takes to make an impact, Matuska will decide whether or not he’s a contender for a spot in the rotation.

Jhonny Williams: He looked like a bean pole when he committed to the Irish. Around a year later, Williams is hardly the former basketball and track athlete that committed to the Irish late in the process. He also could be an answer for some of the Irish’s pass rush woes.

Expect some growing pains for Williams, part of the reason he didn’t see the field last year. But he’s also capable of making an impact off the edge, making Williams’ progress worth watching.

A new voice in his ear can’t hurt with Gilmore ready to get something out of Williams. So add him to a list of intriguing redshirts ready to help.

Pete Mokwuah: One of two late defensive tackle targets by Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly, Mokwuah committed to the Irish sight unscene, turning his back on Rutgers to join the Irish roster.

Listed at 325 pounds on the fall roster, we’ll see where Mokwuah measures in this spring. That’s a big body to work with, and one that’ll likely be transformed after nine months with Paul Longo.

Jerry Tillery: Count me among the believers in Tillery. He’s an elite athlete, and even though he’ll be learning how to grow into his frame, he’s expected to help up front, part of the reason why the transition from offensive lineman to defense appealed to the Irish coaching staff.

For as mature as Tillery is, there’s still likely an acclimatization process taking place right now. But with winter ending and spring football nearly here, Tillery will have this week’s spring break as a battery recharge before establishing his spot in the depth chart.

Micah Dew-Treadway: It’s hard to expect anything from Dew-Treadway this spring, especially after seeing where he was at the Semper Fidelis All-American game in January.

But Dew-Treadway is on campus to get a jumpstart on his career in South Bend, and the number of stars next to your recruiting ranking are all wiped out to zero regardless of who you are once you’re on campus.

He’s big enough and has intriguing game tape. We’ll see how he deals with Keith Gilmore, and likely spends these 15 practices learning the game on his way to a redshirt season.

 

 

 

Spring Solutions: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt
19 Comments

A position group that started last spring as one of the biggest question marks on the defense enters spring practice with the chance to be the most talented unit on the field.

With Mike Elston now coaching linebackers, the veteran coach inherits a group that returns every starter, including depth like freshmen All-American Nyles Morgan and hopefully healthy 2013 starter Jarrett Grace.

Jaylon Smith is everybody’s All-American candidate. Joe Schmidt was the team MVP. James Onwualu returns, almost an afterthought after pushing into the starting lineup after a transition from wide receiver.

As Schmidt works back from the broken ankle suffered against Navy last season, this group needs to spend spring proving that it can succeed without the former walk-on in the middle of the action.

The defense fell off a cliff last year, as even the athleticism Morgan possessed couldn’t make up for the brain drain. So with spring football just around the corner, let’s take a closer look at a position group that is fast becoming stocked with athletes.

 

LINEBACKERS DEPTH CHART

Jaylon Smith, Jr. 
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
James Onwualu, Jr.
Nyles Morgan, Soph.
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student
Greer Martini, Soph. 
Kolin Hill, Soph.
Ben Councell, Grad Student
John Turner, Jr.*
Michael Deeb, Jr.*
Doug Randolph, Jr.*
Tevon Coney, Fr.

It’s unlikely that this group all stays at linebacker this spring. Reports have surfaced that both Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph will be transitioning to defensive end this spring. Kolin Hill essentially served as a speed rusher last season as well.

Councell’s future is up in the air as well, a return to the depth chart as a physical presence not assured, especially with scholarship numbers being tight.

Let’s dive in as we look at some spring objectives.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Jaylon Smith: Smith successfully transitioned to the Will linebacker spot, moving inside after playing outside as a freshman. While Smith’s numbers and eye-popping athleticism contributed to some All-American honors, the young linebacker is still a work in progress.

Where Smith plays now that the depth chart doesn’t demand Smith on the inside remains to be seen. He could be unleashed as an edge player if Jarrett Grace is healthy enough to play inside. (Or Nyles Morgan forces his way onto the field.)

I don’t think the staff is inclined to move Smith outside after working so hard with Smith to play the Will. But if the Irish are looking to get their three best linebackers on the field, Smith’s ability to play in space will allow him to be flexible.

We’ve all just assumed Smith was the type of player to be a potential first-rounder after his junior season. Well, we’re already here. Let’s see if Smith’s development is on track.

Joe Schmidt: We’ve already seen Schmidt prove he can play at a very high level. Now he needs to spend this spring getting healthy, with his rehab from surgery forcing him off the field.

The worries of Schmidt’s size and some difficult matchups never materialized. Now Schmidt’s role as a leader on this team will hopefully hold his position group to a higher standard, with hopes of getting the rest of the position’s Football IQ up to Schmidt’s level.

Get healthy, Joe. Until then, he’ll keep leading this position group by example.

James Onwualu: It’s almost fashionable to count Onwualu out. With Morgan ascending and Onwualu playing a complementary role in the Irish defense in 2014, some assume he’ll be bumped from the starting lineup.

But that kind of thinking has fueled Onwualu his entire career. It helped him earn scholarship offers, helped him get onto the field as a freshman wide receiver and helped him jump the line into the starting lineup in his first extended time playing defense since moonlighting there in his high school career.

Big, strong and physical linebackers who were athletic enough to play wide receiver always have a spot on a defense like this. So this spring, expect to hear about the great strides Onwualu has made in the training program… and watch as his mental game steps forward as well.

Nyles Morgan: As a freshman, Morgan proved that his reputation as a tackling machine was warranted. This spring, he needs to continue his evolution as a linebacker, mastering the Xs and Os that are needed to be a top competitor.

The ability to be a great one is clearly there. Now he’ll compete with two veterans—Jarrett Grace and Schmidt—as he forces his way into the lineup, trying to prove he’s one of the team’s best three linebackers, with No. 1 and 2 (assuming Schmidt’s healthy) already well established.

Jarrett Grace: No player on this roster deserves a happy ending more than Grace. After a catastrophic injury suffered against Arizona State in 2013, Grace’s recovery from multiple broken bones in his leg took longer than anyone wanted.

Brian Kelly has kept us up to speed on Grace’s rehab, sometimes more optimistic about his progress than anybody should be. But there’s a reason to show hope after hearing about Grace beating Jaylon Smith in quickness drills, and anything the Irish get out of Grace in 2015 will be gravy.

That makes spring essential for getting the rust off, and also proving to the coaches and Grace himself that his football career—which once looked all but over—is back on track.

Greer Martini: Considered one of the least heralded recruits to enter the program last year, Martini quickly proved himself to be a more than capable football player, contributing on special teams and working his way into the mix at linebacker almost immediately.

Martini jump-started his development as injuries hit the depth chart. Now as a sophomore, he’ll need to take this spring to prove that those advancements weren’t solely based on attrition.

The reported moves of Randolph and Deeb make it seem like Martini is here to stay and a trusted piece of the future plans. We’ll find out if that’s the case in a few weeks.

Kolin Hill: After making his mark early in the season as a pass rusher, Hill got lost in the shuffle late in the season, losing his spot as a situational pass rusher to veteran Anthony Rabasa.

Hill may only be listed as a linebacker, though his not-quite adequate length (he’s 6-foot-1.5) could necessitate Hill staying in a two-point stance instead of working exclusively as a defensive end.

Continuing his work with Mike Elston, Hill is in for an important spring, especially with his ability to chase the quarterback still very much in demand.

Ben Councell: An original prototype for the 3-4 outside linebacker job, Councell’s spot in this program is still up in the air. A knee injury slowed down Councell’s development. So did falling behind players like Danny Spond and Jaylon Smith.

Councell is a big-bodied athlete, and someone who looks the part of a key defender. After hearing Kelly talk about the important role Councell would play in the defense, we really didn’t see too much of it in 2014.

But as a 260-pounder, Councell has value. But we’ll find out what the Irish staff thinks it is, with his return still up in the air and his role still undetermined.

John Turner: Last year’s spring star, Turner lost the starting outside linebacker job to James Onwualu. This spring, he’ll face more competition, though he could also see some reps at the strong safety position as well with Drue Tranquill returning from injury and the depth chart mighty thin.

One of the big questions about Turner was his ability to run. After being buried as a safety, his size and speed combo played well as a linebacker in space. But if Turner is going to prove his worth to the defense, he’ll need to continue to compete this spring, or else he’ll serve as a depth player and special teams contributor moving forward.

Michael Deeb: It looks as if Deeb will be transitioning to defensive end this spring, a chance to get an impressive looking athlete onto the field. When it took a rash of injuries to get Deeb even on the field against USC (before a play was run, Deeb was subbed out), making the move now to try and find a spot for Deeb makes sense.

Expect to see an even bigger and stronger Deeb come the updated spring roster. A workout warrior, if he can develop as an edge player with a hand on the ground, there’s another intriguing piece that VanGorder can try and utilize.

Doug Randolph: Like Deeb, is sounds like Randolph will be heading over to Keith Gilmore as well. After sitting out as a freshman after shoulder surgery, Randolph was also banged up in 2014, with minor maladies making it difficult for him to get on the field.

The battle at defensive end isn’t as tough as finding playing time as a linebacker, so Randolph will likely garner some kind words from the defensive coaching staff. And he’s a plenty impressive looking player, with his high school tape showing some edge abilities.

So spring will be spent transitioning to a new job. Consider Randolph a candidate for a spring breakout.

Tevon Coney: Welcome to college, kid. Now find your way onto the field with this depth chart. In reality, Coney is playing behind two fifth-year middle linebackers, an All-American and a freshman All-American.

Where Coney starts his career will be interesting. He could be a natural at the will, though he’s marked as a mike linebacker entering. But as a shorter player who relies on speed and instincts, getting some space in front of him could be key.

Fifteen practices is a nice jumpstart to a career. Learning about life in South Bend and getting on the field will be key towards beginning his pursuit of playing time.

Until we see him in something other than a high school YouTube highlight package, let’s reserve judgment.